Growing Green, A Family Gardening Series: Week 1

The Groundwork: Preparing your space, learning more about your soil, getting the kids involved

After a long winter, spring in the prairies is an exciting time! The sun is rising earlier, people are emerging from indoor hibernation, and Canada geese are flying overhead. For me and my 11-year-old daughter, spring means the gardening season has begun – and for her, the best part of that is the taste of homegrown food.

There are lots of reasons you might want to garden as a family: for exercise in the fresh air, the improved nutrition and taste of your own fruits and vegetables, and the opportunities for learning about biology, soil science, the weather, and more. Recent research has also shown the many benefits for children of spending time in nature. These include the development of cooperation and kindness, reduced hyperactivity and inattention, and fewer mental health issues. A recent study has shown people’s mood improves after as little as 5 minutes in nature – and if you do it while working in a garden, you also get food!

What is the first thing you should do if you want to jump into gardening this year? Here’s how to get ready:

The traditional planting date in southern Saskatchewan where I live is the May long weekend – this is because it is almost always after the average date of the last frost in spring – which is important because most vegetable seedlings can’t survive a frost, and the ground needs to be warm enough to nourish seeds. You can find out your last frost date, and when it is safe to plant, here.

This is a mathematical sign of spring, but there are many others! Can your kids spot early buds on lilac trees and cotoneaster (typical urban) hedges? Are there green shoots that will turn into tulips or daylilies? Have robins returned to yards? 

It’s almost impossible to see without a microscope, but life in the soil is waking and flourishing as well.

Preparing soil for planting is the first step in gardening. Where I live, the soil is mostly clay – so sticky and hard that you could almost make a pot out of it! This means it drains poorly so plant roots can drown if it rains a lot. To help my soil, I add organic matter (and a lot of it is free to add, like leaves, compost, and coffee grounds). There are some easy and fun tests you can do with your kids to find out what your soil is like and what it might need.

If you don’t already have garden space, a recent surge in interest in urban gardening means that there are lots of sources to tell you how to turn a lawn into a garden - lasagne gardening can be an inexpensive method using many materials you may have at home. If you lack suitable outdoor space, there are many vegetables that will grow in pots in a sunny enough location and the soil is available at garden centres. 

This weekend, my daughter and I will be digging out some early weeds (but leaving some dandelions for the bees!), adding last fall’s compost, and planning out my planting. And enjoying the smell of rich dirt and green sprouts and the sound of birds and bees in my yard!

TIP: give your child a space of their own to garden and experiment in, or a pot of their own to grow plants in. They can decorate clay pots with acrylic paint. Allowing them to make choices about where and what to grow will help them feel invested in gardening and proud of the results.

Naomi Beingessner has lived and gardened in the Prairies for most of her life. She has two children, an enthusiastic gardener and an enthusiastic eater. She was a high school teacher and is now back in university studying food sovereignty. Her favourite vegetable is green beans but she finds that the most significant taste difference between store-bought and home-grown is in tomatoes.